English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDMED 2012

E.O. Wilson: Advice to a young scientist

Filmed
Views 1,067,879

"The world needs you, badly," says legendary biologist E.O. Wilson in his letter to a young scientist. He gives advice collected from a lifetime of experience -- and reminds us that wonder and creativity are the center of the scientific life.

- Biologist
Biologist E.O. Wilson explores the world of ants and other tiny creatures, and writes movingly about the way all creatures great and small are interdependent. Full bio

What I'm going to do is to just give a few notes,
00:17
and this is from a book I'm preparing called
00:20
"Letters to a Young Scientist."
00:24
I'd thought it'd be appropriate to
00:26
present it, on the basis that I have had extensive experience
00:28
in teaching, counseling scientists across a broad array of fields.
00:33
And you might like to hear some of the principles that I've developed in doing
00:37
that teaching and counseling.
00:42
So let me begin by urging you,
00:44
particularly you on the youngsters' side,
00:47
on this path you've chosen,
00:49
to go as far as you can.
00:51
The world needs you, badly.
00:53
Humanity is now fully into the techno-scientific age.
00:57
There is going to be no turning back.
01:01
Although varying among disciplines -- say, astrophysics,
01:04
molecular genetics, the immunology, the microbiology, the public
01:09
health, to the new area of the human body as a symbiont,
01:13
to public health, environmental science.
01:19
Knowledge in medical science and science overall
01:21
is doubling every 15 to 20 years.
01:24
Technology is increasing at a comparable rate.
01:28
Between them, the two already pervade,
01:31
as most of you here seated realize,
01:34
every dimension of human life.
01:36
So swift is the velocity of the techno-scientific revolution,
01:39
so startling in its countless twists and turns, that no one can predict
01:44
its outcome even a decade from the present moment.
01:49
There will come a time, of course,
01:53
when the exponential growth of discovery and knowledge,
01:55
which actually began in the 1600s,
01:59
has to peak and level off,
02:01
but that's not going to matter to you.
02:04
The revolution is going to continue
02:05
for at least several more decades.
02:06
It'll render the human condition
02:09
radically different from what it is today.
02:11
Traditional fields of study are going to continue to grow
02:13
and in so doing, inevitably they will meet and create new disciplines.
02:19
In time, all of science will come to be
02:24
a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws.
02:28
That's why you need not just be training
02:34
in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields,
02:37
related to and even distant from your own initial choice.
02:41
Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning.
02:45
The search for knowledge is in our genes.
02:49
It was put there by our distant ancestors
02:52
who spread across the world,
02:55
and it's never going to be quenched.
02:57
To understand and use it sanely,
02:59
as a part of the civilization yet to evolve
03:02
requires a vastly larger population of scientifically trained people like you.
03:06
In education, medicine, law, diplomacy,
03:12
government, business and the media that exist today.
03:16
Our political leaders need at least a modest degree of scientific
03:20
literacy, which most badly lack today --
03:25
no applause, please.
03:28
It will be better for all
03:30
if they prepare before entering office rather than learning on the job.
03:32
Therefore you will do well to act on the side,
03:37
no matter how far into the laboratory
03:40
you may go, to serve as teachers
03:43
during the span of your career.
03:46
I'll now proceed quickly,
03:48
and before else, to a subject that is both a vital asset
03:50
and a potential barrier to a scientific career.
03:53
If you are a bit short in mathematical skills,
03:57
don't worry.
04:00
Many of the most successful scientists
04:01
at work today are mathematically semi-literate.
04:04
A metaphor will serve here:
04:08
Where elite mathematicians and statisticians
04:11
and theorists often serve as architects in the expanding realm
04:17
of science, the remaining large majority of
04:22
basic applied scientists, including a large portion of those who could be
04:25
said to be of the first rank, are the ones who map the terrain, they scout
04:30
the frontiers, they cut the pathways,
04:36
they raise the buildings along the way.
04:38
Some may have considered me foolhardy,
04:41
but it's been my habit to brush aside the fear of mathematics
04:44
when talking to candidate scientists.
04:48
During 41 years of teaching biology at Harvard,
04:50
I watched sadly as bright students turned away
04:54
from the possibility of a scientific career
04:58
or even from taking non-required courses in science
05:01
because they were afraid of failure.
05:05
These math-phobes deprive science and medicine
05:06
of immeasurable amounts of badly needed talent.
05:10
Here's how to relax your anxieties, if you have them:
05:13
Understand that mathematics is a language
05:17
ruled like other verbal languages,
05:20
or like verbal language generally, by its own grammar
05:23
and system of logic.
05:26
Any person with average quantitative intelligence
05:28
who learns to read and write mathematics
05:31
at an elementary level will, as in verbal language, have little difficulty
05:34
picking up most of the fundamentals
05:41
if they choose to master the mathspeak of most disciplines of science.
05:43
The longer you wait to become at least semi-literate
05:48
the harder the language of mathematics will be to master, just as again in any verbal
05:52
language, but it can be done at any age.
05:58
I speak as an authority
06:01
on that subject, because I'm an extreme case.
06:03
I didn't take algebra until my freshman year
06:07
at the University of Alabama.
06:10
They didn't teach it before then.
06:12
I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard,
06:15
where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students,
06:20
little more than half my age.
06:24
A couple of them were students
06:27
in a course I was giving on evolutionary biology.
06:28
I swallowed my pride, and I learned calculus.
06:31
I found out that in science and all its applications,
06:37
what is crucial is not that technical ability,
06:40
but it is imagination in all of its applications.
06:44
The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes
06:47
pictured by intuition.
06:51
I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream
06:54
from an ability to stand at a blackboard
06:59
and conjure images from unfolding mathematical propositions
07:02
and equations.
07:05
They are instead the products of downstream imagination leading to hard work,
07:07
during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant.
07:12
Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied
07:17
for its own sake.
07:22
Of foremost importance is a thorough, well-organized knowledge
07:23
of all that is known of the relevant entities and processes that might be involved in that domain
07:29
you propose to enter.
07:35
When something new is discovered,
07:37
it's logical then that one of the follow-up steps is
07:39
to find the mathematical and statistical methods to move its analysis forward.
07:44
If that step proves too difficult for
07:48
the person or team that made the discovery,
07:51
a mathematician can then be added by them
07:55
as a collaborator.
08:00
Consider the following principle,
08:02
which I will modestly call Wilson's Principle Number One:
08:05
It is far easier for scientists
08:10
including medical researchers, to require needed collaboration
08:14
in mathematics and statistics
08:19
than it is for mathematicians and statisticians
08:21
to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
08:25
It is important in choosing the direction to take in science
08:29
to find the subject at your level of competence that interests you deeply,
08:33
and focus on that.
08:39
Keep in mind, then, Wilson's Second Principle:
08:40
For every scientist, whether researcher, technician,
08:45
teacher, manager or businessman,
08:49
working at any level of mathematical competence,
08:53
there exists a discipline in science or medicine
08:57
for which that level is enough to achieve excellence.
09:00
Now I'm going to offer quickly
09:04
several more principles that will be useful
09:06
in organizing your education and career,
09:09
or if you're teaching, how you might
09:12
enhance your own teaching and counseling of young scientists.
09:16
In selecting a subject in which to conduct original research,
09:21
or to develop world-class expertise,
09:25
take a part of the chosen discipline that is sparsely inhabited.
09:28
Judge opportunity by how few other students and researchers
09:33
are on hand.
09:38
This is not to de-emphasize the essential requirement
09:39
of broad training, or the value of apprenticing yourself
09:43
in ongoing research to programs of high quality.
09:46
It is important also to acquire older mentors within these successful
09:51
programs, and to make friends and colleagues of your age
09:56
for mutual support.
10:00
But through it all, look for a way to break out,
10:01
to find a field and subject not yet popular.
10:04
We have seen this demonstrated already in the talks preceding mine.
10:08
There is the quickest way advances are likely to occur,
10:12
as measured in discoveries per investigator per year.
10:17
You may have heard the
10:21
military dictum for the gathering of armies:
10:22
March to the sound of the guns.
10:26
In science, the exact opposite is the case: March away from the sound of the guns.
10:29
So Wilson's Principle Number Three:
10:35
March away from the sound of the guns.
10:38
Observe from a distance,
10:41
but do not join the fray.
10:43
Make a fray of your own.
10:45
Once you have settled on a specialty,
10:48
and the profession you can love, and you've secured opportunity,
10:52
your potential to succeed will be greatly enhanced if you study it
10:57
enough to become an expert.
11:02
There are thousands of professionally delimited
11:05
subjects sprinkled through physics and chemistry
11:08
to biology and medicine.
11:11
And on then into the social sciences,
11:13
where it is possible in short time to acquire
11:16
the status of an authority.
11:19
When the subject is still very thinly populated,
11:21
you can with diligence and hard work become
11:25
the world authority.
11:28
The world needs this kind of expertise,
11:30
and it rewards the kind of people
11:34
willing to acquire it.
11:36
The existing information and what you self-discover
11:38
may at first seem skimpy and difficult to connect
11:43
to other bodies of knowledge.
11:47
Well, if that's the case,
11:49
good. Why hard instead of easy?
11:51
The answer deserves to be stated as Principle Number Four.
11:55
In the attempt to make scientific discoveries,
12:00
every problem is an opportunity,
12:03
and the more difficult the problem,
12:05
the greater will be the importance of its solution.
12:06
Now this brings me to a basic categorization
12:09
in the way scientific discoveries are made.
12:13
Scientists, pure mathematicians among them,
12:16
follow one or the other of two pathways:
12:19
First through early discoveries,
12:23
a problem is identified
12:25
and a solution is sought.
12:27
The problem may be relatively small;
12:29
for example, where exactly in a cruise ship does the norovirus begin to spread?
12:31
Or larger, what's the role of dark matter in the expansion of the universe?
12:37
As the answer is sought, other phenomena are typically discovered
12:42
and other questions are asked.
12:47
This first of the two strategies is like a hunter,
12:49
exploring a forest in search of a particular quarry,
12:52
who finds other quarries along the way.
12:56
The second strategy of research
12:59
is to study a subject broadly
13:02
searching for unknown phenomena or patterns of known phenomena
13:03
like a hunter in what we call "the naturalist's trance,"
13:08
the researcher of mind is open to anything interesting,
13:12
any quarry worth taking.
13:16
The search is not for the solution of the problem,
13:17
but for problems themselves worth solving.
13:19
The two strategies of research,
13:23
original research, can be stated as follows,
13:25
in the final principle I'm going to offer you:
13:28
For every problem in a given discipline of science,
13:32
there exists a species or entity or phenomenon
13:36
ideal for its solution.
13:40
And conversely, for every species or other entity
13:42
or phenomenon, there exist important problems
13:47
for the solution of which, those particular objects of research are ideally suited.
13:50
Find out what they are.
13:58
You'll find your own way to discover,
14:00
to learn, to teach.
14:03
The decades ahead will see dramatic advances
14:05
in disease prevention, general health, the quality of life.
14:08
All of humanity depends on the knowledge and practice of the medicine and the science
14:13
behind it you will master.
14:19
You have chosen a calling that will come in steps
14:21
to give you satisfaction, at its conclusion, of a life well lived.
14:24
And I thank you for having me here tonight.
14:29
(Applause)
14:32
Oh, thank you.
14:37
Thank you very much.
14:39
I salute you.
14:46
Translated by Thu-Huong Ha
Reviewed by Morton Bast

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

E.O. Wilson - Biologist
Biologist E.O. Wilson explores the world of ants and other tiny creatures, and writes movingly about the way all creatures great and small are interdependent.

Why you should listen

One of the world's most distinguished scientists, E.O. Wilson is a professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard. In 1975, he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a work that described social behavior, from ants to humans.

Drawing from his deep knowledge of the Earth's "little creatures" and his sense that their contribution to the planet's ecology is underappreciated, he produced what may be his most important book, The Diversity of Life. In it he describes how an intricately interconnected natural system is threatened by man's encroachment, in a crisis he calls the "sixth extinction" (the fifth one wiped out the dinosaurs).

With his most recent book, The Creation, he wants to put the differences of science- and faith-based explanations aside "to protect Earth's vanishing natural habitats and species ...; in other words, the Creation, however we believe it came into existence." A recent documentary called Behold the Earth illustrates this human relationship to nature, or rather separation from an originally intended human bond with nature, through music, imagery, and thoughtful words from both Christians and scientists, including Wilson. 

More profile about the speaker
E.O. Wilson | Speaker | TED.com